Fear and loathing over Facebook apps

A Wall Street Journal report stirs up the app privacy debate, but is it all much ado about nothing?

Maintaining a comfortable degree of privacy in the fast-moving digital age is an ongoing battle.

The debate over how much control we have over that privacy is heating up again, thanks in large part to a Wall Street Journal article frighteningly titled "Selling You on Facebook" (subscription required). After a history lesson on the evolution of the app, the article's authors report that the developers of Facebook games, quizzes, and other sharing services are "gathering volumes of personal information" and may violate the social-networking giant's policies:

A Wall Street Journal examination of 100 of the most popular Facebook apps found that some seek the email addresses, current location and sexual preference, among other details, not only of app users but also of their Facebook friends.

While the Journal's report quickly highlighted some of the more outrageous or juvenile apps seeking personal information -- a quiz that poses questions such as "Is your friend's butt cute?" -- it also waits 10 paragraphs to explain that the apps are not secretly stealing the data from users. Only after mentioning Facebook's $100 billion IPO and that the company's revenue is largely derived from "capitalizing on personal data" do readers learn that these apps only do what users let them do.

Before users can complete the app download process, a permissions page details the specific data that will be required for the app to function. Facebook policy already requires third-party app developers connecting to the social network to stipulate exactly what parts of a user profile it'll be accessing: photos, friend list data, basic public information.

Josh Constine, a bit of a Facebook expert at TechCrunch, points out that the data is provided in exchange for providing personalized information that may appeal to app users, such as suggestions for nearby restaurants, upcoming concerts, or local deals.

"These kind of articles can make mainstream users so worried about the worst-case scenario of what could happen to their data, they don't see the value they get in exchange for it," Constine said.

Perhaps the real concern should be for the amount of personal data we often unwittingly share with the public and the creepy apps such as Girls Around Me that take advantage of that publicly available data and don't require users' explicit permission to operate.


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